Importin has two subunits, importin α and importin β. Members of the importin-beta family can bind and transport cargo by themselves, or can form heterodimers with importin-alpha. As part of a heterodimer, importin-beta mediates interactions with the pore complex, while importin-alpha acts as an adaptor protein to bind the nuclear localisation signal (NLS) on the cargo through the classical NLS import of proteins. The NLS-Importin α-Importin β trimer dissociates after binding to Ran GTP inside the nucleus.Proteins can contain one (monopartite) or two (bipartite) NLS motifs. Importin-alpha contains several armadillo (ARM) repeats, which produce a curving structure with two NLS-binding sites, a major one close to the N terminus and a minor one close to the C terminus. Importin alpha also contains an N-terminal importin beta binding domain that contains an auto-regulatory region. Importin-beta is a helicoidal molecule constructed from 19 HEAT repeats. Many nuclear pore proteins contain FGsequence repeats that can bind to HEAT repeats within importins, which is important for importin-beta mediated transport.
Ran GTPase helps to control the unidirectional transfer of cargo. The cytoplasm contains primarily RanGDP and the nucleus RanGTP through the actions of RanGAP and RanGEF, respectively. In the nucleus, RanGTP binds to importin-beta within the importin/cargo complex, causing a conformational change in importin-beta that releases it from importin-alpha-bound cargo. The N-terminal importin-beta-binding (IBB) domain of importin-alpha contains an auto-regulatory region that mimics the NLS motif. The release of importin-beta frees the auto-regulatory region on importin-alpha to loop back and bind to the major NLS-binding site, causing the cargo to be released.
^Bayliss R, Littlewood T, Strawn LA, Wente SR, Stewart M (December 2002). "GLFG and FxFG nucleoporins bind to overlapping sites on importin-beta". J. Biol. Chem.277 (52): 50597–606. doi:10.1074/jbc.M209037200. PMID12372823.
^Lange A, Mills RE, Lange CJ, Stewart M, Devine SE, Corbett AH (February 2007). "Classical nuclear localization signals: definition, function, and interaction with importin alpha". J. Biol. Chem.282 (8): 5101–5. doi:10.1074/jbc.R600026200. PMID17170104.